01/06/2012 12:25 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

America's Problem With "Progress"

It's official. Both left and right agree with the data that show Americans now have less upward mobility than Canadians or Europeans. Yet, more than any other, ours is a country founded on progress, the core concept of the "American dream." This is part of the civic narrative that ties us together, the common future that makes us a people.

Will whomever is sworn in next January have the ability to sustain and extend the American narrative of progress? Especially when so many Americans have lost faith in the future, that could be a key to success next November.

In 2008 Barack Obama declaimed on "hope" and "change," two elements that are jointly required for a positive sense of progress. To his supporters his life embodied the Lincolnesque ideal of both individual progress and of national progress on matters of race. How will the eventual Republican nominee embrace some version of the great American longing for progress?

The American progress narrative is uniquely tied to the pioneer sensibility, including ideas of the West, of a frontier, of a wilderness to be conquered. Especially for the last hundred years or so it has been tied to technological advances and economic expansion. Often it is frankly biblical, beginning with John Winthrop's famous 1630 sermon "A City Upon A Hill" that gave a much-needed dose of self-confidence to the Massachusetts Bay colonists.

In his sermon Winthrop told the colonists they were embarked on an "errand into the wilderness." That was precisely the way early Americans came to see their manifest destiny in appropriating the vast continent that extended to the Pacific. The Puritans, of course, thought of themselves on the model of the Hebrew children wandering in the desert, a common theme of modern American evangelicals and Mormons. The presence of natives called Indians called for some theological jerry-rigging, including elaborate theories of "pre-Adamite" man.

If manifest destiny was not exactly imperialism it was surely expansionism; thus the West was won. Presidents Jefferson, Polk, and Pierce made the acquisition of Louisiana and the Southwest key priorities. Andrew Jackson embodied the rough, tough individuality of the frontiersman. (He defeated the seemingly effete intellectual incumbent John Quincy Adams.) Lincoln's railsplitter image did him no harm when running for president, and though he was somewhat distracted by the Civil War he supported Secretary of State William Seward in the controversial purchase of Alaska. Lincoln never realized his dream of seeing California, the golden end of the American horizon.

At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair the historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that the western frontier was the key element in America's unique form of democracy. Whether accurate or not, the idea struck a chord. For fear of losing the frontier sensibility that supposedly hardened Americans, Teddy Roosevelt fought to establish a national parks system that ensured a continuing continental wilderness. Even though as a candidate FDR concluded in 1932 that "Our last frontier has long since been reached," his advisor Vannevar Bush proclaimed an "endless frontier" of science research in 1945.

Richard Nixon had a hard time disassociating himself from the tired and wrinkled Eisenhower administration while John F. Kennedy said he'd "get the country moving again" into a "new frontier."

Though Kennedy worried more about continuing Congressional support for the race to the moon than is now generally remembered, the high frontier captured the American imagination. Ever since then policy planners have hoped to get people as excited about a project that enjoyed such a strong sense of national purpose, especially alternative energy sources. But "energy independence" isn't nearly as sexy as a moon walk.

Nixon got the message in 1968 when he emphasized his California upbringing, thus humanizing him and associating himself with the golden west. It's a commonplace that Ronald Reagan's success in 1980 had much to do with the contrast he drew to a Jimmy Carter who seemed to have soured on the American future. "Morning in America" means the sun rises in the east and illuminates the way west, as it did for the pioneers and the cowboys he portrayed. And Bill Clinton reminded us that he came from a place called Hope.

George W. Bush ran promising to nation build at home rather than abroad, but history caught up to him. He never succeeded in framing a satisfying account of America's future, while during his term we had reason to lose faith in both public institutions (Katrina) and private entities (the financial crisis). For all their differences, no wonder neither the tea party nor Occupy exhibit much faith in either the public or private sector.

Ronald Reagan famously used Winthrop's reference to the Augustinian City of God as the primary trope of his stump speech, and we've recently seen Mitt Romney slip the "City on a Hill" into his rhetoric as well. By contrast, there are no such embellishments in Ron Paul, who overtly warns us of the American equivalent of Churchill's blood, toil, tears and sweat. Rick Santorum promises a muscular foreign policy and a form of moral progress that emphasizes respect for life. But none of them have told us what progress means for a putative American 21st Century.

Ultimately, the current debate about more or less government is a distraction from the real question: What combination of government and industry is most likely to restore Americans' sense of a shared future? And that formula must be wrapped in a narrative that explains why progress isn't what it used to be, even though Americans can't imagine a future without it.